Friday, July 17, 2015

It's Not Star Wars Like You Remember . . . But Wilco Makes A Cool Album!

The Good: Decent lyrics, Some good instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: SHORT, Generally unimpressive vocals
The Basics: Wilco's surprise release, Star Wars, is perhaps most surprising in that it is really good!

A few years back, I decided to make Wilco my Artist Of The Month to immerse myself in their works and see what I could learn. Unfortunately, the first album of theirs I picked up, A Ghost Is Born (reviewed here!), left me so unimpressed that I changed my Artist Of The Month selection to Eels and never looked back. Today, I'm thinking maybe I was a little too hasty; with the release of Star Wars, Wilco proves they can make albums worth listening to!

The truth is, my first experience with Wilco was brought down severely by the fact that the album's lyrics were produced to be well below the instrumental accompaniment so they were virtually indecipherable. On Star Wars, Wilco gives priority to the vocals and lyrics; listening to the new album was instantly evocative of Phoenix and I discovered that Star Wars actually grew on me with each listen! Now that I'm up to the requisite eight spinnings (I'm actually on ten now!), I'm ready to review the album and Star Wars is definitely worthy of praise.

With only eleven tracks, clocking out at 33:47, the biggest strike against Star Wars is simply that it is short. The album was written by the members of Wilco and they play all their own instruments. The album was co-produced by Tom Schick and Jeff Tweedy and given that Tweedy is one of the two core members of Wilco and Schick has previously produced their albums, it is hard to believe that Star Wars is anything but exactly what the band wanted it to be.

The surprise album is not at all related to the film Star Wars or the boondoggle U.S. Missile Defense Shield. Instead, it is a collection of eleven (mostly) mellow rock and roll songs (the opener, "EKG" is cacophanic and loud). The rest of the album is a guitar, bass, and drums-driven album that illustrates little in the way of range or ambition. Instead, the musical accompaniment sounds like accompaniment; backing for the vocals and it is appropriately subtle. While the whole album is musical, there are no striking musical moments on Star Wars. The album sounds like six guys rocking out and noodling around. And it works.

Vocally, Star Wars is similarly competent, but not in any way explosive. Jeff Tweedy has a smooth voice and it is melodic within the tenor register, though he goes higher - almost falsetto for moments - in "Pickled Ginger." Tweedy illustrates decent lung capacity while holding notes on songs like "Where Do I Begin." The album has good, listenable vocals that deliver the lyrics clearly, but there were no moments where the vocals sounded so distinct that I felt I would be able to identify Tweedy's voice from any of a half dozen other, similar, vocalists. In fact, on "King Of You," Tweedy sounds shockingly like John Lennon!

What sold me on Star Wars was the quality of the lyrics. The irony is that the song I was initially most turned off by ended up being my favorite! "Random Name Generator" gets repetitive for a few moments where the title of the song is repeated over and over and over again, but after multiple listens, it actually works! Wilco sings about changing identity throughout life and makes it remarkably musical on "Random Name Generator."

Relationships are a pretty common theme in pop-rock (even alternative pop-rock), but Wilco still has something pretty original to sing on the subject. On "Magnetized," the band compares attraction to another person - especially the inability to leave a loved one behind - to magnetic attraction and, when presented with the hypnotic guitars and mellow vocals, it works perfectly to "show" as well as "tell."

Wilco's writing is good; full of imagery and apt metaphors. Their diction level is higher than the average pop writers', so listening to Star Wars is a treat to the ears and the mind. Ultimately, Star Wars is nothing so active or sprawling as its cinematic namesake, but it makes a statement and is enjoyable on a similar, visceral, level.

The best track is "Random Name Generator," the weak link is the instrumental opener "EKG."

For other new albums, please check out my reviews of:
Endless Forms Most Beautiful - Nightwish
The Way It Feels - Heather Nova
Emerald - Dar Williams


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an exceptionally organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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